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seven - Social justice and the family

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  19 January 2022

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Summary

Introduction

The family is a problem for any theory of social justice. On the one hand, children born into different families face very unequal prospects. However those prospects are conceived – as chances of social mobility, of lifetime well-being or income, or simply in terms of quality of childhood experiences – the fact that children are raised in families generates inequalities between them that it is hard to defend as fair or just. On the other hand, any suggestion that we should do away with the family for the sake of social justice, instead raising children in centrally organised quasi-orphanages or the like, is immediately regarded as the kind of crack-pot idea that only a philosopher could possibly envisage. The objection is not simply that abolishing the family would be a recipe for disaster, flying in the face of plausible claims made by sociobiologists or evolutionary psychologists. Rather, the family is defended by appeal to the kind of rights and duties with which theories of social justice are themselves fundamentally concerned – a claim about the vital role that familial relationships play in human flourishing and the fundamental interest that people have in being able to experience them.

It seems, then, that the family is both an obstacle to the realisation of social justice (because of the unfair inequality it produces) and a key ingredient of a just society (because of the right to parent–child relationships). This kind of tension is familiar to political theorists who, like us, think of themselves as ‘egalitarian liberals’ (or ‘liberal egalitarians’). For us, achieving social justice is essentially about getting the right balance between equality and liberty. Justice requires that people be treated as equals and that requirement has serious distributive implications. It matters that people have equal resources to devote to their life-plans, or that they have equal opportunity for well-being, and on any specification of the approach (egalitarian liberals differ on the details) it is clear that social justice demands that goods be distributed much more equally than they are in the UK today. But, as liberals, we recognise that it is valuable for people to choose their lives for themselves, and important that they be accorded the freedoms necessary for them to live well.

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Social Justice and Public Policy
Seeking Fairness in Diverse Societies
, pp. 139 - 156
Publisher: Bristol University Press
Print publication year: 2008

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